Planet Diversity World Congress on the Future of Food and Agriculture

Ingenious Maasai farmer innovates to save water

The farm of Alex Ole-Pere, a Maasai who lives in a semi-arid region of southern Kenya, is often described as an oasis in the desert. His simple idea of a rainwater reservoir to capture run-off water from the surrounding mountains has been spread to other farmers in the area. His plot also serves as a water reserve for surrounding farmers and pastoralists in the dry season.

From afar you can see a large Bluegum (Eucalyptus) tree, which would not normally survive in this dry climate. As you approach his farm, there are trees visible on the plains where typically the only vegetation is Acacia bush.

Alex is one of the farmers identified as an innovator in the “Promoting Farmer Innovation in Farmer Field Schools” (PFI-FFS) programme in Kenya untapping knowledge.

Africa has enormous resources of rich traditions, untapped knowledge and promising innovations relating to soil and water management. Farmers often experiment with soil and water conservation techniques on their own and spontaneously try out new practices without the direct support of formal research and extension.

Like the ingenious invention of Alex's, many of these small-scale initiatives have the potential to benefit other smallholders if they are applied on a wider scale.

Spreading innovations
Farmers in drylands often suffer from extension systems that do not function well because of the large distances involved and the marginal nature of arid areas. This often leads to the failure of recommended technologies. Instead of relying on technologies that are often inappropriate and introduced from the outside, there is a real possibility in dryland Africa to build on local resources of knowledge and traditions, and the inventiveness that comes from necessity.

In East Africa in recent years, increasing attention has been paid to capturing local knowledge and initiatives and disseminating this information to other farmers. For example, UNDP and FAO have been working since 1997 to increase the recognition given to indigenous knowledge in agricultural extension by supporting farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing and the identification and dissemination of local innovations (see below "Innovation initiative in East Africa").

Dam building
Although Alex’s district receives up to 600 mm of rainfall per year, this rainfall is highly erratic and unpredictable. The risk for crop failures due to drought is high. People in the area traditionally depend on livestock, but as it gets harder to sustain large cattle herds on grazing land that is gradually shrinking, more and more people have started to turn to crop production.

Alex realised that every rainy season a lot of water from the nearby mountains seemed to be wasted as it raced towards the rivers. He came up with the idea of collecting this rainwater by building a dam. He built a reservoir close to his homestead and constructed a diversion from a local waterway. The diversion directed the flow of water from the stream into the reservoir. The dam, which is about 20 by 30 metres wide, was built by digging out the earth and putting it on the outside of the reservoir.

Water collected in this way is used for irrigating vegetables and tree seedlings. While most of the area around Alex’s farm appears barren because trees and bushes are continually being cut for firewood, Alex plants more and more trees every season on his plot. Apart from sustaining the crops and trees on Alex’s farm, the reservoir also serves the larger community. “My neighbours normally come to fetch water from my dam in bad times. They can take both for their families and for their livestock. I have enough”, he says proudly.

Innovation initiative in East Africa
The Promoting Farmer Innovation (PFI) process is a 10-step guideline to identifying and disseminating farmer innovations. It was developed by a UNDP supported project in 1999. The project was piloted in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda with the aim of identifying farmer innovators. The ideas of these innovators were disseminated through farmer-to-farmer extension and farmer exchange visits. In Kenya, an ongoing initiative supported by UNDP and FAO known as the Promoting Farmer Innovation in Farmer Field Schools (PFI-FFS)project has merged the PFI process with the Farmer Field School (FFS) approach to participatory extension.

The objective of the initiative is to facilitate increased interactions between innovators and FFS groups and in this way to stimulate the process of innovation and discovery among farmers. Innovators are identified by FFS extension staff and are often included in the FFS as group members, guest speakers or resource persons. Alternatively, the FFS groups go on study visits to see the innovations.

About 250 farmer innovations have now been identified within the Kenyan PFI-FFS project. Around 40 percent of innovations are related to the efficient use of water resources, including water harvesting, small-scale irrigation and other ways to use surface water efficiently.

Today, a significant proportion of poor people who depend directly upon the natural environment live in water scarce regions. All over the world, smallholders need water for their agriculture, livestock and households. Small-scale water solutions seem to be a key for enhancing food productivity for poor farmers and pastoralists in dry areas. Local innovators like Alex Ole-Pere can be found everywhere in Kenya and many other countries too. The challenge is to find ways of encouraging their inventiveness and originality so that their ideas can be developed and shared with other land users.

Findings from the PFI-FFS project show that there is a real possibility for bringing together external and indigenous sources of knowledge in agricultural extension activities. Initial results of the PFI-FFS programme suggest that farmers show a higher level of adoption when new technologies are introduced by fellow farmers rather than by extension workers and outsiders. East African farming conditions are very diverse and therefore require solutions appropriate to the local context. By capturing local innovations and promoting indigenous knowledge in extension and development activities, sustainable solutions can be found and scaled up.


Deborah Duveskog and Charles Mburu. FAO Kenya, PO Box 30470, Nairobi, Kenya. E-mail:

Åsa Forsman. UNDP Drylands Development Centre, PO Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya. E-mail:

A full paper of on the PFI-FFS initiative is available at


Ingenious Maasai farmer innovates to save waterIngenious Maasai farmer innovates to save waterIngenious Maasai farmer innovates to save waterIngenious Maasai farmer innovates to save water

Local Organising Committee